Could Jerry Hughes Be the Pass-Rusher the Bills Need Opposite Mario Williams?
Defensive end Mario Williams is scheduled to make $12.4 million in 2013, but at $870,000, fellow linemate Jerry Hughes may be just as important to the defensive scheme. He may also have just as much of an impact.
To this point in camp, he has impressed as a pass-rusher. Day in and day out, Hughes finds his name in the practice notes of Bills reporters such as The Buffalo News' Tim Graham and WGR 550's Joe Buscaglia.
The Bills really lacked a solid edge presence opposite Williams last year, and if early signs in camp hold true, they may have found one for 2013.
"The way [defensive coordinator Mike] Pettine's able to plug calls in, it works well from the guys in the back seven to the guys in the front four," Hughes told the Associated Press (h/t FoxNews.com).
"He's able to kind of highlight everyone's skill and we're able to really just pin our ears back and just go play football."
Hughes was drafted by the Colts in 2010 as a 4-3 defensive end, but ended up playing outside linebacker in Chuck Pagano's 3-4 scheme last year.
The pass-rusher could benefit from his multiple experiences. Pettine likes to use a lot of different looks—he'll move players around and have them fill different responsibilities from time to time.
But if Pettine is playing to Hughes' strengths, he'll be rushing the passer more often than not.
Jerry Hughes has been running second team OLB behind Mario Williams. Showing good pass rush & poor coverage skills. @1070thefan at 11:05ET.— Matt Warren (@MattRichWarren) August 8, 2013
Coverage has never been Hughes' forte. He dropped into coverage on just 85 of his 628 snaps (13.5 percent) in 2012, while rushing the passer 251 times (40 percent).
Pro Football Focus (subscription required) ranked him the 11th-best pass-rushing 3-4 outside linebacker—better than then-teammate Dwight Freeney, Steelers linebacker LaMarr Woodley and tied with Chiefs linebacker Tamba Hali.
We've seen what Hughes does best, and it's getting after the quarterback.
He's done it from a two-point stance and a three-point stance. On this 1st-and-10 against the Jaguars, he lined up in the latter of those two stances on the left end in the Wide 9 technique to the outside of the right tackle.
Hughes put his burst on display, as he simply scooted right around the right tackle and Blaine Gabbert was easily sacked when he couldn't step up in the pocket to evade the pressure.
As of right now, Hughes is listed as the second-string right end on the Bills' depth chart behind Mario Williams.
His role in the Bills defense should be much bigger than that of a typical rotational defensive end. If Pettine is doing things in Buffalo the way he did them in New York, he'll be fielding the best pass-rushers possible.
That being said, it's not just about Hughes' ability to get after the quarterback. He'll have to stop the run from time to time as well.
Pro Football Focus attributed him with 31 tackles, 22 of which were "stops"—or tackles that resulted in an offensive failure—and just one missed tackle. On top of that, Advanced NFL Stats charted him with seven tackles for loss.
He'll be tested, with teams most likely running away from Mario Williams, but he's shown to be up to the task in the past.
Tight end Dustin Keller isn't revered for his blocking, but Hughes showed great stack-and-shed technique here to get his arms into Keller's pads, keep his eye on the running back and get off the block to make the tackle.
He lined up in a two-point stance as an outside linebacker, though, and will need to show he can do those things against bigger offensive tackles if he remains a 4-3 defensive end.
In fact, that may be part of the reason why 6'5", 301-pound Alex Carrington is currently listed as the starting defensive end opposite Mario Williams.
Regardless of his exact role, Hughes could have a much bigger impact for the Bills defense than the average rotational defensive end.
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